This is one of the most eye-opening musical documentaries of all time. It concerns the Funk Brothers…the studio band, comprising about a dozen members, who played on all the Detroit-era Motown tracks, in the process appearing on more hit singles than any other performing entity in history, including Sinatra, Elvis and the Beatles.
The film intercuts fascinating and often bittersweet reminiscences by the surviving members of the group with footage of a reunion concert they performed in 2000, with various contemporary singers providing the vocals but with a greater emphasis on the instrumental aspects than before. The singers all do fine work, particularly Joan Osborne on “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”, but they all deliberately play second fiddle to the legendary backup band, allowing you to consciously hear for the first time the amazing sound that we have all heard, unconsciously, on the many great Motown hits.
The stories told in the film are often humorous, but they lead to a rather depressing, if factual, ending: after a couple of their members succumbed to drug addiction and died an early death, Barry Gordy heartlessly fired the group when he relocated Motown to Los Angeles. The members themselves come across as nobly unbitter about that betrayal, but it’s hard for the viewer not to feel a certain outrage, compounded by their own guilt at never having heard of or noticed this integral part of the legendary Motown sound.
A particularly sad scene features a series of normal music fans being asked who they thought did the instrumentation on the famous Motown singles, to which not one of them can provide a real answer. Fortunately, thanks specifically to this film and the book it was based on, the Funk Brothers are finally receiving a certain measure of the acclaim they so richly earned all those years ago, so this documentary has the distinction of being a genuinely positive force in the music world. On that basis alone, I’d say it’s worth a look.